Great Chardonnay, Back to Back

Now is the time to buy California's stellar white wine.



Wine lovers can exult in the 2002 and 2003 California Chardonnays, the greatest back-to-back vintages ever.

Never before has California produced such ripe, rich, dry white wines. Diehard ABCers— Anything But Chardonnay-ites—don't know what they're missing.

It's hard to say which vintage was superior. They were certainly different. The 2002 harvest was riper and more accessible, with opulent, fat wines; 2003's was a much smaller crop that produced more tightly structured wines, the best of which are ageable. What the two vintages shared was a long, sunny, dry harvest. In both years, little or no rain fell statewide until the last Chardonnay grapes were picked.

In terms of my scores on the Wine Enthusiast 100-point scale, 2002 was slightly better, besting 2003's average score by a hair. But this result is statewide, and the scores are skewed by bottles from big regional appellations, such as "California," "Central Coast" and "Sonoma County." Some of the most important smaller AVAs, including Arroyo Grande Valley, Carneros, Edna Valley, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills, fared quite a bit better in 2003 than in '02. The average score for 2003 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay was nearly 3 points higher than for the '02s, and, at 92.3, was the highest average score for any California district, proving that this exciting region is home not only to brilliant Pinot Noir but to stellar Chardonnay.

Although many '02s are gone by now, some will continue to trickle out. You should still be able to find bottles on restaurant wine lists, as well as at wineries that sell library wines. But the '03s are widely available, and will continue to be released throughout 2006.

It wasn't just the weather that made for such magnificent Chardonnays. "Undoubtedly, the refinement of location for high-end Chardonnay to cooler coastal regions has been responsible for producing increasingly interesting wines," says Alan Phillips, winemaker at Foley Estates in the Santa Rita Hills, whose Rancho Santa Rosa bottling (94 points, $30) was one of our two top-scoring 2003 Chardonnays. A cool climate allows the grapes to ripen more slowly and preserve more acidity, making the resulting wines a little leaner, but more elegant.

Indeed, of our two dozen top-scoring 2003 Chardonnays, all but one was from cool coastal areas like Carneros, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, Monterey, Green Valley, Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. Even some wineries that have grown their grapes in warmer regions for a long time are migrating to cooler ones. "Our Reserve Chardonnay is moving from an Alexander Valley-dominated blend to one that's up to 40 percent from Carneros," notes Chateau St. Jean's winemaker, Margo Van Staaveran, whose 2002 Reserve Chardonnay (98 points, $45) was our highest-scoring Chard from that vintage.

2003's TOP CHARDONNAYS
94 Foley 2003 Rancho Santa Rosa Chardonnay (Santa Rita Hills); $30
94 Vine Cliff 2003 Chardonnay (Carneros); $34
93 Fess Parker 2003 Ashley's Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Rita Hills); $26
93 Foxen 2003 Tinaquaic Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley); $24
93 Iron Horse 2003 Corral Vineyard Chardonnay (Green Valley); $35
93 Shafer 2003 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay (Carneros); $40
92 Buena Vista 2003 Ramal Vineyard Clone 96 Chardonnay (Carneros); $32
92 Charles Creek 2003 Las Abuelas Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay (Carneros); $39
92 Cuvaison 2003 Chardonnay (Carneros); $22
92 Dutton-Goldfield 2003 Rued Vineyard Dutton Ranch Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $40
92 Gainey 2003 Limited Selection Chardonnay (Santa Rita Hills); $32
92 Morgan 2003 Hat Trick Double L Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands); $50
92 Talley 2003 Rincon Vineyard Chardonnay (Arroyo Grande Valley); $36
92 Tolosa 2003 Edna Ranch Chardonnay (Edna Valley); $20

2003's BEST CHARDONNAY BUYS
90 Aquinas 2003 Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $13
90 J. Lohr 2003 Riverstone Chardonnay (Arroyo Seco); $14
88 Raymond 2003 Chardonnay (Monterey); $13
87 Forest Glen 2003 Oak Barrel Fermented Chardonnay (California); $10
87 Jewel 2003 Un-Oaked Chardonnay (Monterey); $10
87 Turning Leaf 2003 Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $12
86 Black Box 2003 Chardonnay (Monterey County $20/3L
86 Gina 2003 Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $10
86 Meridian 2003 Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County); $10
86 Smoking Loon 2003 Chardonnay (California); $9
85 Blackstone 2003 Chardonnay (Monterey County); $10
85 Delicato 2003 Chardonnay (California); $7

2002's TOP CHARDONNAYS
98 Chateau St. Jean 2002 Reserve Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $45
96 Morgan 2002 Hat Trick Double L Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands); $50
95 Pine Ridge 2002 Le Petit Clos Chardonnay (Stags Leap District); $50
95 Talbott 2002 Cuvée Cynthia Chardonnay (Monterey County); $55
94 Joseph Phelps 2002 Ovation Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $44
94 Newton 2002 Unfiltered Chardonnay (Napa Valley); $56
94 Vine Cliff 2002 Proprietress Reserve Chardonnay (Carneros); $50
93 Château Potelle 2002 VGS Chardonnay (Mount Veeder); $35
93 Fort Ross Vineyard 2002 Reserve Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $40
93 Iron Horse 2002 Corral Vineyard Chardonnay (Green Valley); $32
93 Marimar Estate 2002 Don Miguel Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $28
93 Peter Michael Winery 2002 Ma Belle-Fille Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $75

Sophisticated viticultural practices also made important contributions to quality. These include new clones, better matching of clones to rootstocks, more refined matching of both clones and rootstocks to individual vineyard terroirs, and space-age technologies that can accurately measure precise nutritional requirements on virtually a vine-by-vine basis. "We're seeing much finer timing and quantity of irrigation," observes Van Staaveran. In newer vineyards, closer spacing of vines means that plant competition can yield smaller but more intensely flavored grapes. The most finicky wineries spare no expense in getting things right, from radical shoot thinning in order to reduce crop loads, to night-picking the grapes to preserve freshness. Many wineries now put the newly picked grapes into small boxes instead of the large bins that are usually used, to avoid bruising the fruit. Some use refrigerated trucks to transport the bunches to presses in order to keep the grapes cool.

Once in the winery, California's greatest Chardonnays are produced using full-throttle Burgundian techniques, such as barrel fermentation, sur lies aging and battonage (stirring of the lees), and the use of fine barrels that have been toasted to impart smoky, vanilla notes. A greater selection of yeasts and malolactic bacteria, and a wider array of barrel sources, are also factors leading to richer, more complex Chardonnays. "We're working toward identifying specific barrels, from both French and American oak sources, that work best with specific vineyards," says Van Staaveran.

Some vintners, however, are moving away from heavy, hands-on winery interventions in order to let the fruit speak more clearly. "Our fruit is so good, we're using less new oak, less malolactic fermentation, and less time in barrel," says Foxen winemaker Bill Wathan. This echoes the new unoaked Chardonnay phenomenon, which is gaining ground, mostly in less expensive wines, such as Jewel's 2003 Un-Oaked Chardonnay (87 points, $10).

The most controversial aspect of modern Chardonnay is alcohol levels. They've been rising, as they have in other varieties. "We've gotten as high as 16.1 [percent alcohol]," says Bob Cabral, the winemaker at Williams Selyem, of his Hawk Hill, Heinz and Allen vineyard-designated Chardonnays. Vintners allow grape sugars to pile up in a way they never did before because riper grapes' flavors are more tropical than citrusy; in riper grapes, acidity is also lower and tannins, riper. My own feeling is that Chardonnay can handle high alcohol more easily than red wines, because it's less tannic, and chilling it masks its heat.

If winemakers want to lower alcohol, they have access to certain techniques; reverse osmosis, the "spinning cone," or adding water or grape juice. There are almost as many opinions about such interventions as there are winemakers. "We don't use RO, but many do," says Foley's Phillips. Cabral says, "My feeling on de-alc-ing is, it works for some people, but it's not something we feel the need to do here." On the other hand, Rusack's John Falcone says he used to de-alcoholize his wines when he worked at Atlas Peak. "It's a useful tool," he notes. Vine Cliff's Rex Smith agrees: "We don't mind using the technology if we think it will make a better wine."

Meanwhile, hard on the heels of the '02s and '03s, here come the 2004s. They look like winners, too. So when it comes to California Chardonnay, consumers may be treated to a three-peat.

DEPENDABLE CHARDONNAY PRODUCERS
Here are Chardonnay producers you can depend on. Some are "classic" in the sense of their longevity and fame. Others are less well known, but have been producing consistently high-quality wines in recent vintages. All make Chardonnay from California's coolest growing regions. (For complete reviews of these wineries' offerings in 2002 and 2003 as well as previous vintages, click on www.winemag.com)

Morgan Winery
Dan Morgan Lee has made wine under his Morgan label since 1982. For much of that time he also had to work at other wineries—like Jekel and Durney—to pay the bills and save up enough to plant his Double L Vineyard, located in the coolest section of the Santa Lucia Highlands, where he's also building his winery.

"We've never lost money. But all that early profit was plowed back into expansion and equipment," Lee says. "We grew the label first and put everything back into it." His first Double L wines were produced in 1999. From the get-go, they were wines of interest; today, a Morgan wine off the estate is practically guaranteed to shine. As good as the 2002 Double L Chardonnay is (92 points, $34), the Hat Trick bottling, a barrel selection, is even better (96 points, $50). Subsequent vintages of both have consistently merited 90-plus scores.

Morgan also produces excellent Pinot Noirs and Syrahs. In fact, Double L's Syrah vines are just now coming into production. If the wine is anything like Morgan's magnificent 2000 Syrah, a blend of Paraiso and Garys' vineyards, it should be a show-stopper.

Foley Estates Vineyard
In 1997, William Foley, a Santa Barbaran who founded a large financial services corporation, bought the old J. Carey winery, in the Santa Ynez Valley, and renamed it Lincourt; the winery produces Santa Barbara County-appellated wines. The following year, he purchased Rancho Santa Rosa, a property in the Santa Rita Hills, and planted it to 230 acres of cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. There, he built his second winery, Foley Estates. All Foley wines are estate bottled, with a Santa Rita Hills appellation.

The vineyard captures the Pacific breezes that flow in from the west across this transverse valley. Foley's Syrah remains a work in progress, but there's no doubting the richness and complexity of the Burgundian varieties. The Pinots, particularly the clonal and block bottlings, are elegant, complex and ageworthy. The estate Chardonnay follows suit; the 2003, the best yet, shows brilliantly etched tropical fruit flavors boosted by high natural acidity.

Winemaker Alan Phillips, onboard since 1998, studied under the late, great Andre Tchelistcheff, and earned his stripes at Monticello, in Napa Valley. But Phillips's tenure in Santa Barbara County has taught him the value of a cool climate. "When I first came here, I made Chardonnay from the [warm] Santa Ynez Valley. After a year of barrel age, it was depleted, lacking character. As we morph into Santa Rita Hills, we're finding a fresher Chardonnay, a little leaner and steelier, due to the cooler location," he says.

Vine Cliff Winery
In 1990, Charles and Nell Sweeney produced their first Vine Cliff wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, from their Oakville estate vineyard. Merlot came next. The red wines quickly achieved a reputation for elegance and ageworthiness. Somewhat unusually for a Napa Cabernet house, Vine Cliff also made an early commitment to Chardonnay. The first vintages of Chardonnay, beginning with 1992, were made from Carneros grapes purchased from wineries including Truchard, Clos Pegase and Cuvaison.

"The Sweeneys planted their own Carneros vineyard, on the Napa side, in 1996. Since 2003, all our Chardonnay has come from there," notes winemaker Rex Smith, a New Zealander who came to Vine Cliff in 2001, after stints at Saintsbury, Rombauer, Hess and Cuvaison. Vine Cliff's most expensive Chardonnay is the Proprietress Reserve, a "best barrels" selection, but the classic Carneros estate Chardonnay is often close to it in quality, and less costly.

Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard
Fess Parker, the original Davy Crockett, began planting his Santa Ynez Valley vineyard in 1989. "The intention was to have a small vineyard and sell fruit to local producers. But Fess is from Texas, so he can't do anything small," quips his daughter, Ashley Parker Snider, the winery's executive vice president.

The winery now farms 700 acres throughout Santa Barbara County. From the estate vineyard, in the warmer Santa Ynez Valley adjacent to the winery, come reliably rich Syrahs and Viogniers. In the 1990s, the family planted Ashley's Vineyard, near the western edge of the Santa Rita Hills, to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The winery sold Ashley's Vineyard last year due to financial constraints, but a longterm contract calls for them to access the fruit until 2011.

Fess's winemaker son, Eli, now devotes himself to the family's Epiphany brand. The new winemaker at Fess Parker is Brett Escalera. Besides Ashley's Chardonnay, Escalera also crafts a Santa Barbara County bottling. Having to sell Ashley's Vineyard "was unfortunate," says Parker Snider. The winery now owns no Chardonnay or Pinot Noir vineyards. "But we have another opportunity looming in the Santa Rita Hills" for a new, unspecified property, she adds.

Iron Horse Winery
In 1976, former corporate lawyer Barry Sterling and his wife, Audrey, bought a property that the pioneering Sonoma vintner, Rodney Strong, had developed, in the cool Green Valley section of the Russian River Valley. Forrest Tancer, who had worked for Strong, married Sterling's daughter, Joy, and became Iron Horse's winemaker. The Sterlings decided to focus on sparkling wines, and now Iron Horse routinely crafts some of California's best, made from the large estate vineyard. Also from the estate come delicate, powerful Chardonnays and elegant, crisp Pinot Noirs. From a warmer property in the Alexander Valley, which was once owned by Tancer's family, come Iron Horse's Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.

Iron Horse produces an estate Chardonnay and a pricier Corral Vineyard bottling, the latter a block selection from the foggiest part of the estate. "The vines are very shy-bearing, and they're growing on a severe slope with a warm southwest exposure, with all the wonderful things a slope does for grapes," says winemaker Dave Munksgard. Now in his twentieth year at Iron Horse, Monksgard's responsibilities ticked up last year, when Tancer retired. "The family has made it clear that they don't want me to just maintain quality, they want it improved every year," Monksgard says, adding, "and I take that as a mandate."

Tolosa Winery
Ajoint venture between two longtime Central Coast/Central Valley agricultural families, Tolosa (named after the old Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa) produced its first wines in 1998. All the grapes are estate grown, coming from the large, 720-acre Edna Ranch Vineyard located in Edna Valley, one of California's coolest coastal growing regions.

Winemaker Ed Filice came onboard in 2000, after 15 years at the giant Monterey Vineyard. It was a distinct transition, he says. "In a large facility like Monterey Vineyard, you lose touch. I'd make some very nice, top-shelf lots, and then see them blended out. That quality just got lost. So when I came here, I could focus on a brand that is only 4,000 cases. You can imagine, I was in heaven." Tolosa produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Two hundred acres of Chardonnay are grown, but Filice uses only 5 percent of the grapes for his Chardonnays, the estate and a best barrel selection called 1772. In 2004, he began production of No Oak Chardonnay. With such vast acreage of Chardonnay to choose from each year, Filice says, "I'm like a kid in a candy store."

Foxen Vineyard & Winery
Foxen is the brainchild of two men, Dick Dore, a fifth-generation descendant of a pioneer settler in Santa Barbara County, and winemaker Bill Wathan, who's worked in the county for 30 years, including a brief spell at Chalone.

The Chardonnay comes from the large Rancho Tianquiac Vineyard, in the Santa Maria Valley the vineyard is owned by the Dore family and planted by Wathan in 1989. "We have two clones, the old Wente clone and Clone 4, which we got from Bien Nacido," Wathan explains. The vineyard is in a low rainfall region, yet is nonirrigated. The wines are dependably intense in fruit. Foxen also crafts Pinot Noirs from well-known vineyards including Julia's, Sea Smoke and Bien Nacido, and rich Rhône-style Syrahs. A clutch of Bordeaux-style and Cal-Ital wines rounds out the portfolio. Over the years, Wathan has steadily reduced the amount of malolactic fermentation on his Chardonnay, in order to preserve acidity. He's also cut the time the wine spends in French oak to 10 months. "I've been through the 24 months in barrel thing, and the wine seems to get really tired," he says.

Davis Family Vineyards
It was in 1997, after a stint as director of marketing at Kendall-Jackson, that Guy Davis produced his first commercial wines, a Napa Cabernet and Dutton Ranch Chardonnay. Before that, he'd made wine at the tiny Sky Vineyards, on Mount Veeder. In 1996, he bought his own vineyard in the Russian River Valley, where he grows Pinot Noir and Syrah, next to Zinfandel vines that are now 107 years old. The Pinot, in particular, is a serious wine that showcases Russian River Valley terroir. Total case production is about 3,000. Davis also makes a Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc and various Argentinian wines, under the Gusto label. Davis's Chardonnay, made from purchased grapes grown by the Dutton family, comes from two vineyards, one in the Green Valley, the other in Russian River Valley. "Both really are cool climates out there," Davis says, from his office in Healdsburg. "In fact, we pick them later than our Napa Cabernet." Now in his ninth year crafting the Dutton Chardonnay, Davis says the cool climate and long hang time help ripen the grapes without pushing sugar levels too high.

Rusack Vineyards
In 1994, aviation law attorney Geoff Rusack and his wife, Alison, moved from L.A. to the rural Ballard Canyon region of Santa Barbara County, where Rusack Vineyards now stands. A few years ago, winemaker John Falcone came onboard, after stints at Callaway and Atlas Peak; he is assisted by his wife, Helen, who's done stints at Paul Hobbs and Chimney Rock. Grapes for the Rusack Reserve Chardonnay, now in its fifth vintage, come from two vineyards in Santa Maria Valley, Bien Nacido and Goodchild, with whom Rusack has longterm contracts; the winery itself owns no Chardonnay vines. Rusack also produces a Santa Barbara Chardonnay that's a blend of Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills fruit, including grapes from Foley. At about $20, it's often a good buy. Rusack's wines have definitely improved since Falcone arrived. "I've been in the business now for 29 years, and know a lot of people," he says. "So when I came here, I tapped into my relationships with growers, and was able to pick up some great vineyards, like Fiddlestix and Stolpman." As for working with his wife, Falcone smiles. "She focuses more on the day-to-day wine processing activities, while I set the style."

The Yeast Thing Once upon a time, winemakers had few alternatives when it came to the yeast grape juice needs to ferment. Either they bought a couple brands of commercial yeast—one for red, one for white—or they depended on far riskier natural yeasts to get things going. Nowadays, there are almost as many commercial yeasts as there are brands of automobiles. "Winemakers enjoy a greater selection of yeasts now as a direct result of genetic code mapping," explains Rex Smith, the winemaker at Vine Cliff Winery, in Napa Valley. Ever since scientists broke yeast's genetic code, in 1996, new strains have been developed to enhance specific attributes in wine, including acidity, aroma, flavor and mouthfeel. Even the wine's alcohol level is impacted by choice of yeast. "With people picking at higher sugars these days," says Rusack's winemaker, John Falcone, "they've been engineering these yeasts to handle higher alcohol." Says Vine Cliff's Smith, "The only way I've found to take advantage of these advances is to identify specific attributes in our individual wine lots that need improving, research the latest yeast strains, and then experiment with these strains each year."

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